The Corner

The Meaning of John Lewis

I’m not sure enough Americans appreciate John Lewis to the extent they should. When I think of Lewis, I always think of Doug Marlette, my dear departed friend, who spoke admiringly of Lewis and even modeled one of his fictional characters after Lewis in his last novel, Magic Time.

Doug, who died a year ago in a freak auto accident, was best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, but he was also a novelist deeply moved by the sweep of history and the great human experiment called democracy. He was especially riveted by the courage of men such as Lewis, who led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis was knocked down, got up, was knocked down again — all for the privilege of speech. For the right to have a vote. During his life as a civil rights activist, Lewis was knocked unconscious four times and arrested 40 times.

I’m not sure I’ve missed or appreciated Marlette more than tonight. He would have loved this spectacle — and the world needs his gimlet eye on these events. I can report that he was skeptical of Obama and teased me when I returned from Boston four years ago clearly smitten. He was convinced that Obama’s magic would wear off. We shall see.

But the magic of John Lewis isn’t going anywhere, whether people know about it or not. When you think of courage, think of what it feels like to be a black man walking unarmed toward a crowd of white law enforcement officers armed with billy clubs. Think of what it feels like to be beaten and bloodied by those clubs. Then imagine getting up and walking again into that same terror. Over and over again until they take you to the hospital.

Then think of John Lewis.

Marlette was also a man of courage, but used ink and brush to wage war. A conscientious objector during Vietnam, he would never compare himself to the men and women who shed blood for justice, but he was ready to help their case with his art. His book is a tribute to those warriors who made Barack Obama possible. No matter what one’s politics, the magic belongs to America tonight. Congressman Lewis, take a bow. And rest in peace, Marlette. Magic time, indeed.

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